Rich daughter thanks wananga

By Jon Stokes

Companies owned by the daughter of Te Wananga o Aotearoa head Rongo Wetere earned more than $74.2 million in five years from contracts with the institution.

Susan Cullen has released details of contracts with the wananga exclusively to the Weekend Herald, just days before the release of an Auditor-General's report into the institution.

The Audit Office confirmed in February that its investigations included claims of conflict of interest relating to Mrs Cullen and the wananga.

She was unapologetic about the level of income generated by the programmes - Mahi Ora, Kiwi Ora and Life Works - which she had developed. Income from the programmes propelled the former consultant "earning around $30,000 a year" to a multi-millionaire within a year.

"God sends waves and you have to learn how to surf them.

"I would do the same again if given the chance."

Mrs Cullen estimates her personal fortune at around $30 million, which includes three Waikato farms, two rental properties and a commercial property.

She said Mahi Ora, which was set to be launched in Australia, was hugely popular and had been the catalyst for the wananga's spectacular growth.

Wananga enrolments jumped from 800 in 1999 to 12,000 in 2001. In 2002, 25,000 students were enrolled in Mahi Ora.

The programme is a free, home-based, 12-month distance learning programme, covering educational choices, health, finance, housing and business development within a Maori context.

Life Works was a variation of Mahi Ora developed and sub-contracted to the Open Polytech.

Kiwi Ora offers a similar programme geared for new immigrants.

Kiwi Ora is run by Ora, a company owned by Mrs Cullen, with Government funding paid directly to Ora by the wananga less an 18 per cent fee.

A former adviser to the wananga who did not want to be named said the deal was unusual and should not have been entered into by the wananga.

He said Dr Wetere signed off on the contract after Mrs Cullen threatened to take it to AUT.

Mrs Cullen said there was nothing wrong with the arrangement and attacked the audit as a Government-backed move to take her father out of the wananga.

She said veiled threats had been made to Dr Wetere about the outcome of the audit, in a bid to get him to stand down.

"Mallard [then Education Minister Trevor Mallard] made it very clear he wanted the chief executive out of his job, and he would use any method, political, legal and bureaucratic to achieve that.

"The audit was called to bring him down.

"There have been regular delegations of those working for the Government to the family and my father, to encourage him to resign.

"All hingeing on the belief that the report was going to be bad for him."

Mrs Cullen said while the audit raised concerns around some processes it fell short of the "hysterical" accusations levelled by former Act MP Ken Shirley.

Mr Shirley used parliamentary privilege in February to make a number of allegations including nepotism, financial mismanagement, cronyism, poor course quality and dubious enrolment practices.

"None of Ken Shirley's allegations are in the report. They were false. They have had to resort to focusing on the Wetere family.

"There will be no serious fraud investigation. There has been nothing fraudulent in the family's dealings with the wananga.

"We have always believed that the report would vindicate our family from the allegations."

Mrs Cullen, who has a masters in education administration and a bachelor of science degree, designed the programmes based on 10 years experience contracted to Winz to develop programmes for the long-term unemployed.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Michael Cullen said the minister would not comment until the Auditor-General's report has been released.

The terms of reference were released on Thursday at a Waitangi Tribunal hearing considering a claim that the Government's dealings with the wananga breached a Treaty settlement.


Big earner

Income for companies owned by Susan Cullen:

2000-2001 Mahi Ora - $8.9 million
2001 Sale of Mahi Ora programme - $7.5m

Awarua (Life Works)
2002 Programme development - $1.5m
2004 Curriculum development - $300,000

Ora
2000-2005 Kiwi Ora programme $56m

Total $74.2m

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